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The untold stories of the Revolutionary War

‘Cato and Dolly’ reveals the people history left behind

Celina Colby
Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
The untold stories of the Revolutionary War
The front door of John Hancock’s mansion is just one of the exhibits on display alongside performances of “Cato and Dolly” at the Old State House Museum. Photo: Justin Knight

The Old State House Museum, in partnership with Plays in Place, is hosting the short play “Cato and Dolly” through Sept. 29. The 20-minute play by Patrick Gabridge tells the stories of Cato, a lifelong slave and then servant at the John Hancock home, and Dolly, John Hancock’s wife. The play is presented along with an exhibit, “Through the Keyhole,” which features the front door of the Hancock Mansion displayed among other objects from the home.

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For more information on "Cato and Dolly," visit Plays in Place website,

The front door of John Hancock’s mansion is just one of the exhibits on display alongside performances of “Cato and Dolly” at the Old State House Museum. Photo: Justin Knight

The front door of John Hancock’s mansion is just one of the exhibits on display alongside performances of “Cato and Dolly” at the Old State House Museum. Photo: Justin Knight

The exhibit and the production are aimed at exposing behind-the-scenes pieces of history. “‘Through the Keyhole’ is looking at unheard voices during the Revolutionary War,” says Gabridge. “I was really interested in who these people were in the Hancock house that weren’t being heard.” The performance runs Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays at 11 a.m., 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m., and is included with the cost of admission to the Old State House.

According to Nathaniel Sheidley, executive director of the Bostonian Society, which cares for the Old State House, “Cato and Dolly” is just the beginning of a more inclusive view of history. “We’re really interested in showing the full spectrum of humanity through history,” he says. Programming around “Through the Keyhole” and the play will continue throughout September, including a participatory discussion about the play’s relevance to contemporary Boston.

For Stephen Sampson, the Uphams Corner native who plays Cato, this history doesn’t seem so distant. “There’s a line after Cato is freed, when he says, ‘It’s a dangerous world out there to look like me,’” says Sampson. “The dangers are different, but they’re still there.” Cato left more behind to history than most slaves of that time. Historians have found baptism records for his children and a receipt with his name on it, and he’s mentioned by name in letters from the Hancocks. These resources helped in telling his story.

Sampson says he’s glad that black stories are being included in Boston’s historical narrative. “Three percent of people in Boston were black at the time,” he says. “I hope the audience comes away accepting the reality of slavery in America.” 

The front door of John Hancock’s mansion is just one of the exhibits on display alongside performances of “Cato and Dolly” at the Old State House Museum. Photo: Justin Knight

The front door of John Hancock’s mansion is just one of the exhibits on display alongside performances of “Cato and Dolly” at the Old State House Museum. Photo: Justin Knight

“Cato and Dolly” is an engaging way to learn about two underrepresented historical parties. Though it has a healthy sprinkling of comedy, the show doesn’t shy away from the realities of the time, including Dolly’s loss of children and Cato’s limited rights even after his freedom. Cato repeatedly underscores that, however friendly with the family he may be, he’s as much a possession as the Hancocks’ front door.

theatre, U.S. history
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